Friday, March 14, 2014

Sir Thomas Malory, Crook

Today is the 543rd anniversary of the death of Thomas Malory. While the year 1471 might be a little late for the Middle Ages, Thomas Malory has an important role in our view of things that are medieval—one thing in particular.

from a 1405 French History of Merlin
Malory's claim to fame is as the author of Le Morte d'Arthur [Middle French: "The Death of Arthur"], a collection of romances published by William Caxton about King Arthur and members of his court. Most of the stories existed prior to Malory, but he added some original material to them. The details of the Morte are considered the primary literary source for modern re-tellings of the Arthurian legend. As with many authors, his actual identity has been the subject of speculation. There were several "Thomas Malory"s around the time, but we think we've narrowed down to the right one...

...and he was a criminal.

Probably born between 1415 and 1418, he was knighted by October 1441 and became a soldier under the Duke of Warwick. In 1443 he was accused of attacking a Thomas Smythe and robbing him of £40. Then, in 1450, he was accused of leading an ambush against the Duke of Buckingham. That same year, he stole items worth £40 from a house in Monks Kirby and raped the lady of the house.* In the next year or so, he became an extortionist, trying to get 100 shillings from one couple and 20 shillings from another man.

He committed many other offenses against both people and property, mostly against people we know to have been followers of the Duke of Buckingham, who was a rival of the Duke of Warwick. It is possible (but not, to a modern audience, excusable), that his actions may have been somehow sanctioned by his loyalty to Warwick.

This being the right Thomas Malory would explain the references to him in manuscripts as a "knight prisoner" and the statements at the end of some of the romances. One romance ends with "For this was written by a knight prisoner Thomas Malleorre, that God send him good recovery." Another ends with "And I pray you all that readeth this tale to pray for him that this wrote, that God send him good deliverance soon and hastily." It seems that Malory wrote while he had plenty of time on his hands—in jail.

It is ironic that the author of the collection of tales that exemplify the high ideals of chivalry was himself not a very chivalrous man.

*To be fair, "rape" was also a common accusation for consensual sex with another man's wife.

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